Born on April 24, 1737 on Long Island, New York, Edmund Fanning was the son of Colonel James Phineas Fanning and Hanna Smith. He studied law at Yale University and attended Kings College, Harvard College, Dartmouth College, and Oxford University. His legal studies fostered a predilection for Whiggish thought—a belief in the limitation of monarchical power and an increase in parliamentary power.
After receiving his license to practice law on October 16, 1759, Fanning moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina, and began a political career. His friendship with Lord William Tryon, the Governor of the Province of North Carolina, helped him become a prestigious and profitable lawyer. He was appointed Crown Attorney in 1761 and developed a probate practice in Rowan County. Shortly afterwards he received an appointment to the Salisbury district. In 1763 he became the clerk of the Superior Court of Orange County. His political ascendancy culminated with an appointment as the Associate Justice of North Carolina, a position acquired when the presiding Judge Alfred Moore publicly criticized the Stamp Act. Eventually, Judge Moore returned to the bench, and Fanning resumed his duties as Crown Attorney. Fanning also committed simony and benefice, and he paid for, and received, multiple public offices, including his judicial position, Crown Attorney, and colonelcy in the militia.
The North Carolina Regulators believed Fanning epitomized political corruption. They accused Fanning of embezzlement and abuse of tax collection, although a 1724 act detailed that courts charge fees for their services. Regulators demanded documentation concerning the construction of Tryon Palace in New Bern and opposed Crown actions they believed to be unnecessary for their welfare. Fanning’s political philosophy and friendship with Governor Tryon unsurprisingly led him to oppose the Regulator Rebellion. Tryon, however, allowed Fanning to be tried for extortion. Making an impartial trial verdict impossible, Regulators served on the jury and gathered outside the courthouse to demand the return of funds allegedly taken illegally for Crown purposes. Fanning was tried on September 1, 1768. Judge Moore ruled that the court required substantial information to discharge Fanning, and according to common law, the evidence against Fanning did not meet the level of certainty required. Fanning then filed a Writ of Error and appealed to the Temple in London to acquit him. Shortly afterward, Tryon assembled a council in New Bern to plan ways to gather support for Crown policies in the backlands. The participants were required to affirm their loyalty to the Crown and respect for law and order.
Regulator opposition to Tryon and Fanning continued, however. In defending the Regulator’s populist attitudes, Herman Husband, a leading Regulator ideologue, affronted Fanning and challenged his legalist, Whig views. Matters got even worse when a Regulator mob assaulted Fanning and vandalized and torched his Hillsborough home. As evidenced by Husband’s “A Fan For Fanning And A Touchstone For Tryon” (1771), Fanning’s association with the royal governor and alleged malfeasance had provoked many Piedmont colonists.
Fanning’s reputation, however, was rescued when Tryon accepted the governorship of New York and offered him a secretary position. Tryon later appointed Fanning a Surrogate and Regent of the Prerogative Court, but the Privy Council refused to confirm the appointment. But Fanning’s allegiance to the Crown never wavered. In 1775 he organized the loyalist King’s American Regiment. During the War for American Independence, Fanning was wounded twice and was appointed as a colonel in the British Army. The Crown also awarded him a non-combat position: surveyor-general of New York.
Once Americans secured their independence, Fanning fled to Nova Scotia, married, and was eventually appointed its Lieutenant Governor. He was later appointed Lieutenant Governor for Prince Edward Island. His additional service to the British Crown resulted in his appointment as a general in the regular British Army. Despite his popularity with the Crown, Fanning was financially destitute, so Lord Tyron left an inheritance in his will for his longtime friend. Fanning died on April 25, 1808, leaving behind a wife and daughter.
Edward C. Brothers, “The Regulators: North Carolina Taxpayers Take Arms Against the Governing Elite," American Illustrated History (1983): 42-48, Alonzo T. Dill, Governor Tryon and His Palace (Chapel Hill, 1955); Hugh T. Lefler, ed., Orange County and the War of Regulation in Orange County, 1752-1952 (Chapel Hill, 1953); Paul David Nelson, William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in the British Imperial Service (Chapel Hill, 1990).